The Club

Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
Narrated by: Simon Vance
Length: 15 hrs and 1 min
4.5 out of 5 stars (237 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Prize-winning biographer Leo Damrosch tells the story of "the Club", a group of extraordinary writers, artists, and thinkers who gathered weekly at a London tavern.

In 1763, the painter Joshua Reynolds proposed to his friend Samuel Johnson that they invite a few friends to join them every Friday at the Turk's Head Tavern in London to dine, drink, and talk until midnight. Eventually, the group came to include among its members Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, and James Boswell. It was known simply as "the Club". 

In this captivating audiobook, Leo Damrosch brings alive a brilliant, competitive, and eccentric cast of characters. With the friendship of the "odd couple" Samuel Johnson and James Boswell at the heart of his narrative, Damrosch conjures up the precarious, exciting, and often brutal world of late 18th-century Britain. This is the story of an extraordinary group of people whose ideas helped to shape their age - and our own.

©2019 Leo Damrosch (P)2019 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

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Wonderful survey


This well-written and moving account of London’s most famous dinner club could work as a standalone biography of either Johnson or Boswell. The others are treated in survey fashion, but with enough breadth and detail that they also come to life. It’s one of the best books on the period I’ve ever read. And Simon Vance’s narration is, as usual, superb: he suggests the accents of the various members of the Club clearly but with restraint.

An especially delightful passage in the book recounts the journey Johnson and Boswell made to the Hebrides. Both wrote books on the trip — Johnson’s wise and weighty, Boswell’s entertaining and gossipy — but for me the real entertainment came from the observations Boswell made in his private journal that he left out of the published account. Even with the omissions, the response to Boswell’s chatty book convinced him there was a solid market for a book full of Johnson’s conversation.

Damrosch covers a surprising amount of the world at large. Edmund Burke in particular provides a window onto the world of geopolitics: the American War for Independence, trade and taxation, the growing empire in India. Johnson himself took a dim view of colonization by conquest, and ridiculed American slaveowners for their cant about liberty and freedom from oppression. Unfortunately, many of his pro-government political writings were dismissed by contemporaries because his annual pension from the crown made his motives for writing suspect.

One of the author’s most vivid examples is Edward Gibbon, the overfed historian whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire broke new ground in the reliability of his sources and the acuteness of his reasoning. Gibbon was a religious skeptic, and his masterwork caused him no end of trouble: his account of early Christianity, which rose at the same time Rome was falling, was less than complimentary. Gibbon’s conclusions about the early church, as described by Damrosch, are hard to argue with today, with another 200 years of archaeology and archival research on the subject. But Gibbon’s skepticism was anathema to Johnson, who accepted the tenets of the Church of England without hesitation and without apology — even though some of its doctrines causes him to spend agonized and sleepless nights worrying about the state of his soul. Johnson feared damnation. To him, the prospect of burning in everlasting fire was neither metaphor nor concept: it was a constant daily presence in his life, as real as his next breath.

Another person whose career intersected the others — though not a member of the Club — was the Great Infidel, the philosopher David Hume. Boswell described to Johnson the calm good humor with which Hume faced his approaching death from cancer; Johnson refused to believe that Hume was not secretly terrified of death. Both were scandalized when Adam Smith praised Hume, after his death, as a “wise and virtuous” individual. How could an unbeliever be considered wise and virtuous?

Damrosch is especially good at clarifying the political philosophies. Many men of the time considered themselves liberals, but modern-day liberals would be shocked at their conservatism. Government FOR the people was understood; but government BY the people was regarded with horror, a horror made more intense by the French Revolution. Edmund Burke, an MP, believed that a revolution would always end in a bloodbath, and the most convincing populist among the Generals would capitalize on the chaos to take command.

He was right, mostly; it perfectly captures the later career of Napoleon. But Burke never conceived of a man like George Washington, who literally turned his back on power.

Damrosch is at pains to describe the women who moved in this circle as well. Chief among them was Hester Thrale, whose husband greatly admired Johnson and provided him with a room at their estate, Streatham. Boswell rarely appeared there: nobody except Johnson much liked him. So he missed seeing Johnson during dinners surrounded by women, exchanging hearty laughter and flirtations. Other women in the group (but not in The Club!) were the writers Hannah Moore and Fanny Burney. Damrosch’s portrait of Burney and her novels inspired me to add her to my reading list.

(Footnote: Hester Thrale’s daughter Queeney appears as a minor character in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series.)

One aspect of Johnson’ relationship with Hester Thrale has troubled many biographers. There are elusive references to chains and padlocks and confinement. Hester kept the keys — literally. Was there a sexual element in this? I’m more inclined to think it’s a reflection of Johnson’s lifelong terror of madness. But whatever it was, Damrosch gives an account of the evidence. This is clearly another area where Boswell was completely in the dark.

In his last years, Johnson’s physical faculties began failing, though his mental faculties remained sharp. He suffered from arthritis, gout, and congestive heart failure. He had a mild stroke but recovered. He began taking increasing amounts of opium, even as he noted the deleterious effects of addiction. His friend Henry Thrale died, and when Hester Thrale remarried, she did so in a way that caused an irrevocable break with Johnson: she married an “Italian singing master” — a CATHOLIC FOREIGNER. The break was immediate and permanent. Yet she went on, after Johnson’s death, to write an affectionate memoir of her old friend.

Like most biographies I’ve read, this one ends sadly. In this case, because so many people are included, the sadness is almost overwhelming. It’s not that people die: that’s a given. It’s that they die in pain, sometimes ruined, sometimes alone, sometimes terrified. Johnson, in his last days, took a pair of scissors to his swollen legs and tried to cut deep enough to drain them. Joshua Reynolds went blind. Boswell, having lost his wife to tuberculosis, became a drunk and a bore. Edward Gibbon died of peritonitis, a particularly painful and horrible way to go. Friends and loved ones died; debtors went to prison; physical faculties were irretrievably lost. So it went with Edmund Burke; so it went with Hester Thrale; so it went with Richard Sheridan; so it had gone with David Hume, David Garrick, and Topham Beauclerk.

But they left behind towering achievements: Johnson’s Dictionary, his Shakespeare, his Lives of the Poets; Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations; Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; the paintings of Joshua Reynolds; and Boswell’s Life of Johnson, brilliantly conceived if not brilliantly written: the first biography, as Damrosch points out, to incorporate verbatim dialogue.

27 people found this helpful

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Buy the book not the audio version

This is an enjoyable read with excellent narration. Unfortunately the book makes frequent references to illustrations leaving the listener regretting not buying the book instead of the audio version.

17 people found this helpful

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Too much psychopathology, too few ideas

I was expecting accounts of brilliant conversations between great minds. Instead, much of the book is devoted to the psychological pathologies of the protagonists, in particular, Dr Johnson. It also appears these great men frequently drank to excess. Great thoughts and ideas are in short supply. The result is somewhat tedious.
The most interesting parts are about some of the women in the orbit of The Club. They seem to me to be more interesting, if less famous, than the men.

6 people found this helpful

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Wonderful visit to the literary past

By intertwining the mini biographies of his main characters, Professor Damrosch has given us deep insight into the literary past. The characters come alive in discussions and conversations and we learn plenty of interesting facts along the way. For instance, most people in the 18th Century did not how to swim.

3 people found this helpful

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Gripping Portrait of an Age

What delightful, brilliant characters! Gives a good picture of the 18th century through entertaining & insightful pictures of its literary, economic & political giants: Samuel Johnson (first English Dictionary), Adam Smith (founder of economics), Edmund Burke (statesman & advocated for American independence), Francis “Fannie” Burney (novelist), and many others. Doctor Johnson and his lecherous side-kick and biographer, James Boswell, weave their way through this book.
It’s probably most interesting to people who have heard these names before, but it also works as an introduction to the intellectual world of the Age of Enlightenment. My only quibble is that it pays only glancing attention to David Hume, upon whose work all of modern western philosophy rests.
But, perhaps, the author wanted to keep it light.

6 people found this helpful

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Inaccurate Title & the Like

This was a rather frustrating read. It was mostly about Boswell and Johnson rather than the Club, and had way too much material on Boswell's vice. It's a bit off putting to be repeatedly be reminded by the author that Boswell's biography of Johnson is a Masterpiece when, despite the title, this book focuses more on Johnson than anything else. I would have rather invested the time reading Boswell's own book. The book does have a lot of good detail on these two and Edward Gibbons, but, the rest of the members of the Club receive far too little attention.

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"Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me.

"Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both."
-- Samuel Johnson to James Boswell

The Club is a frame biography. But it is certainly more than its parts. At its core, Damrosch nails together small biographies of Johnson, Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbons, and other minor characters/members of "the Club." But this book goes beyond this. It is also a history of the age, using the members of the club as a lens into England in the mid-to-late 18th Century. And since the membership of the club involved writers, poets, historians, economists, artists, actors, etc., it allows Damrosch the ability to peruse the age from multiple perspectives with Johnson and Boswell being the gravity at the center of the book. Damrosch also does well to include the important women during this time AND to not sugar-coat the poor behavior of many of the men (especially Boswell). It is a balanced work whose narrative keeps pace with the wit of its subjects. I came here after reading Vol X last year of Durant's Story of Civilization Rousseau and Revolution. Both do a good job of surveying many of the important minds of the time.

Next up will be larger works by Boswell, Johnson, Smith, Burke, etc., and bigger biographies of the same.

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Such a terribly misleading title

The title suggests that it is about a club and the subtitle implies that the reader would learn how the the members of the club shaped their age. If that's what the book had been primarily about--an intellectual history of the era-I would have enjoyed it. Instead Damrosch, who seems to have left no factoid from his research go unreported, gives us the National Enquirer version of the lives of Johnson and Boswell and to a lesser extent about some of the other members of this club. Alcoholism, sexual addiction, gout, venereal diseases, and the like play a much greater role in this narrative than does any explanation of the how these luminaries shaped their age. Hoping for more, I stuck with it to the bitter end. What a disappointment.

A reader/listener who was already well familiar with the work of these guys--yes, all guys--would have found it interesting. Not me.

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Brilliant performance by Vance

The cadence of the reading, the intonations and the various accents employed by Simon Vance constitute another brilliant performance. Thoroughly enjoyable.

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Impressive work of history that runs cold

I listened to this book based on the recommendation of a respected critic and having had a passing interest in Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, but no real experience with them. Author Leo Damrosch is a true scholar, it seems he has read and fully digested virtually every word written by these 18th century writers and the intellectual giants who joined their dinner club, including Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon and others. Damrosch also has a firm and nimble grasp of the geopolitical realities of that period and how these luminaries viewed and debated the great issues, including such wide-ranging matters as England’s relations to Ireland, India and the New World. He is also able to detail fascinating minutia, such as that Edward Gibbon’s younger brother was also named Edward, because their parents fully expected the sickly older Edward to die. And yet, with all of this erudition, one comes away with a, at best, cold feeling towards Boswell, a drunkard, connoisseur of prostitutes, strong defender of slavery, philanderer, whose bizarre “daddy issues” caused him to ingratiate himself with the much older and austere Johnson. As to Johnson, at least in this recording, his alleged wicked wit and famous spontaneous quips seem sort of “meh” and whatever intangibles made him such an appealing person to others of his day simply does not come across to 21st century readers. Tellingly, both Johnson and Boswell apparently looked down on Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon. Maybe they were so busy impressing each other and their society friends that they missed something? Finally, of all of the characters, the one who stands out, at least in this telling, for courage, integrity and strength of character, is Hester Thrale, although unfortunately her life is detailed more as a "supporting player" presumably because she was not a member of the all-male Club.